Book Review

The Experimentalists by Joe Darlington

the limits + importance of language (cw: suicide ideation)

cw: body image, mental illness, suicide ideation

Tottenham, August 27th, 2022

Shit – it’s August 27th. How did that happen? I’ve been back in the UK for three months and in all that time I’ve done… err… nothing significant. I haven’t even got to the bottom of my not massive to do list.

I’ve had two poems accepted for publication, sure, and I’ve got a lot of submissions out, sure, but I can count one on hand (without using the thumb) how many friends I’ve arranged to spend time with since then. Sure, I’ve exercised a lot and lost most (tho not all or even enough) of the gross fat my ageing body retained after the static horrors of the pandemic (remember that? No one seems to here!), but the main thing I’ve done (other than work on my own writing, have panic attacks, start crying for no apparent external reason several times a day, do a little bit of self harm and just think, pine and dream of suicide (yes, doctor, I’m having persistent thoughts of killing myself, yes, doctor, I’m persistently making plans for how to do that but no, doctor, I’m not going to carry them out, but I am going to be pissed off every morning when I wake up because I didn’t die the day before 🤠)), of course, as always, my one eternal foible and empty crutch, is read. I’ve been reading and reading and reading.

I love to read. I love literature. I love the way that text – such a stupid little gesture, stains on a page, lights on a screen – convey so much of what it is to be human.

I enjoy the ways in which the methodologies used by writers have changed over the course of the millennia in which we (as a species) have had the written word. Ultimately yeah, it’s fucking stupid, right?

Why should these tiny little images hold such meaning within them?

Why is a word a word?

Why do the noises and the sounds we make with our voice convey thought and emotion in such a fundamentally disconnected yet (when it is a language we understand) clear manner?

We are limited by the constraints of our own language as to what we can express.

We can only talk of ourselves and about anything other than ourselves using the language with which we have, which is a tool rather than the thought itself.

Language is not a perfect representation of the internal life of individual, nor of a society.

It is not possible to perfectly document, dramatise, evoke lived experience on the page, nor to document fantasy, potential or impossible lived experience on the page, too.

Just as photorealistic oil painting and photography itself lack-

It’s kinda strange, right, when you break down (or try to break down) the limits of our own ~not necessarily~ perception but expression.

I can tell you as I compose this blog that every single day I’m imagining hanging myself from the top of a inadequately secured crane that I walk past several times a week while walking my dog & I can tell you I feel no hope for the future & that I feel sad & as if I’m inevitably repeating mistakes and false starts I’ve made before, but that doesn’t express how I feel.

All I have is a word, “dread”, and that is just a word; “dread” isn’t the the feeling that’s inside me.

Y’know, I can try to explain the physicality of that feeling within me… it’s a black hole, a black hole located just underneath my sternum that feels like an egg that is growing and growing and pushing aside and out of my body any potential for feelings and experiences that are beyond that pain, that black hole & that dread – and it is dread – can only be fed by these words that I use to talk about it. Right?

Saying I want to hang myself from a crane using my bike chain doesn’t make me more likely or less likely to do it, it just means that I have attempted to express that desire, but I don’t have a way to express the potency, the power, of said feeling and this is the same for all other big emotions. It’s the same with love and with grief, with lust and with hunger, we – or at least, I, I, scott manley hadley, I – don’t have the ability to describe these massive feelings or to engage with these huge ideas within our own bodies without a recourse to language (except, of course, for those people you hear about who do not have an internal monologue).

Language is the thing that we have have, it is the only thing we have as a way to try and speak to and speak with ourselves, to link our thoughts and emotions and our physical pulls and pushes and hungers, right?

Because it is all we have, language is as much a trap as it is a tool.

The way we use it must be interrogated, because if we’re not considering how we use the language we use, we are failing to consider how we are the beings that we are.

If language is the only aperture between our conscious mind and [I suppose what we consider] our soul (right?) and our body, and all of the pleasures and stresses and anxieties that come with having the body, then study and engagement with language is probably the most important task in the world for someone who wants to understand themselves better.

This is the kind of this is the kind of ideology shared by the British writers – predominantly novelists – of the 1960s and ’70s who can be (and often are) grouped together as “the experimentalists”.

Joe Darlington’s recent and excellent book (published by Bloomsbury Academic) explores in broad detail the lives, the contexts and the texts of this disparate groups of writers.

Some of these writers I am very familiar with and they will, of course, be very familiar to the kind of person who reads this blog, e.g. Ann Quin, BS Johnson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Anthony Burgess, William S. Burroughs (yes, I know he wasn’t British and so does Joe Darlington, but he spent sufficient time here with sufficient influence on “the scene” to feature quite prominently in this book), JG Ballard & many more.

There’s also a lot about the publishing industry of the time, particularly those publishers most interested in experimental writing. Most prominent of all of these prominent publishing prominences is John Calder, the guy who founded Calder Publishing (known as Calder & Boyars for a period when Marion Boyars co-ran it), which published a lot of these books for the first time back in the day.

As well as the above notable names, there are several writers who feature heavily in this book who I haven’t read but will soon, including Alan Burns, Alexander Trocchi & Eva Figes. There are also references to experimentalish mainstream writers of the time, such as favourite Doris Lessing.

(((to be honest, I found it a little odd that Anthony Burgess isn’t treated in the same way in this book as Doris Lessing is, as he – like sainted Doris – is both older and similarly – socially – on the fringes of the “core group”, so perhaps his significance comes more from his positioning as a critic for national newspapers and his therefore mainstream advocation for the work of these other writers, so, though, this might also be my own prejudice surfacing as I’ve never really gotten on with the work of Burgess, whereas all of the other writers explored in this book (& Lessing obvs) that is not the case…)))

Anyway, as I said above, all I’ve really been doing this summer is reading.

This book has expanded my list of books to read exponentially.

Joe Darlington writes about writers who I’d never heard of previously and texts, obviously, by those writers I’d never heard of, too, but The Experimentalists also reminded me of writers who I read and enjoyed years ago, giving me a new enthusiasm to return to those texts (many of which are available only locked away in the British Library or for hundreds of pounds (this is not an exaggeration)).

Darlington’s writing is engaging and sharp (tho there is a conspicuous use of the word “bolshie” to describe B. S. Johnson almost every single time he is mentioned) and very very readable throughout – I often laughed, and laughed hard. It’s exactly what I was hoping the book would be, tbh – it explores a clique and its hangers-on, & it explores the repercussions of the trauma of living through the [repercussions of] war. 

If you’re interested in the writing of any of the writers mentioned above (there are many more in the book too – Zulfikar Ghose, for example)  and you generally like literary biography, then this is an excellent and impactful volume.

Don’t be put off by the “academic” tag – it’s not at all snooty or overly complex. It does a great honour to some of the most overlooked and under-read novelists of the last 80 years. Well worth a read! Highly recommended!

If you think you’ll like it – a group literary biography – then you definitely will!

Order direct from the publisher via this link is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

10 comments on “The Experimentalists by Joe Darlington

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